This post is going to be more than about quotes; it’s my hope it will help some readers identify projections and the “problem” with reading into words, adding meaning that is not there, or using ad hominem before judging the validity of an expression of an idea. I hope you will keep that in mind. Ad hominem is often used today to suppress ideas that are worthy of thought (or at least, worthy by some).
If the expression of an idea was written by someone that you generally find to be abhorrent, does that mean all their expressions should be discarded, banned, or burned? What if, in isolation, an expression of one of their ideas still has merit to consider?
I personally find some of the writings attributed to Moses in the Old Testament to be abhorrent. I won’t get into them all, but is that a legitimate reason to discard ALL of Moses’ writings? “Ah,” you might say, “But that’s different.”
Oh is it? Any true Old Testament scholar will know that the Moses’ writings as well as other writings in the Old Testament speak of genocide from time to time, of the enemies of Israel. If you wish to disagree with me on this, we can have that discussion. If you have not come across it, then you haven’t read the Old Testament in full.
First of all, from the outset, let me be clear that I do not agree with censoring any speech, and my position is that we ought to be defending the freedom of speech and expression, regardless of how repugnant we find it. If we stop doing that, we are headed down a very slippery slope.
Earlier today, on Twitter, I discovered that there had been a kerfuffle at a high school regarding a quote that one of the students had used in a yearbook, and that apparently, this quote had something to do with Nazism. Curious, I read further and discovered this article entitled “Use of Nazi quote in Highland Park High School yearbook halts its distribution“
Go ahead and read it and come back.
Now when I read about this kerfuffle, I was expecting some quote that perhaps was “pro-Nazi” or “anti-Semitic” or something. Instead, I discovered this:
One of the quotes was attributed by a student as “anonymous,” but it is commonly associated with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who was Hitler’s minister of propaganda.
“If you tell a big enough lie, and you tell it often enough, it will be believed,” read the quote.
“Huh?” I thought. I have come across that quote myself, and had no clue it was associated with Adolph Hitler and/or Joseph Goebbels. I also have no clue about any other context; the idea expressed in the quote is generally true, as far as I can tell. I see governments and activists telling big lies, often enough that it is believed by people who don’t bother to critically assess the big lie, and if they hear it often enough, they assume it must be true, because that’s “what everyone is saying.”
And that is the idea that this quote expresses. To me, that quote has always been a warning about government and activist propaganda; it never struck me as being “pro-Nazi” or “anti-Semitic” or anything of the sort. And now that I know it may have been Hitler or Goebbels that wrote or said it, I still do not see the problem with the idea being expressed: “If you tell a big enough lie, and you tell it often enough, it will be believed.”
To take this even further, now that I am aware the quote is associated with Hitler and Goebbels, the more the quote has much meaning; the Nazis were certainly masters of telling big lies, repeating them, and having them believed. Today, our governments, while perhaps not being Fascist or Nazi, also tell big lies and repeat them over and over, with the hope the majority with little critical thinking skills, will just believe them. Activists do this all the time, with their misleading advertising, half-truths, or fear-mongering.
IN that sense, this quote is very valuable to consider. Just because the quote is attributed to Goebbels or Hitler does not make the idea being expressed any less true. In fact, knowing what we know about the Nazi regime, the idea expressed in that quote has much merit! It’s a warning to those who want to critically examine what is being told you – and a warning that just because something is repeated over and over (and even by so-called ‘experts’), does not make it true. There is nothing in that idea that would want me to look further into any idea of supporting Nazism or Anti-Antisemitism; in fact, the idea expressed in that quote is one that I actually ascribe to myself, and fear about other people:
“If you tell a big enough lie, and you tell it often enough, it will be believed.”
That’s a scary thing, and we see it all the time, and all through the ages. No matter what political spectrum you associate yourself with, it is likely you believe lies because you’ve heard them over and over, others believe them, and many people do not take the time to question them. There are big lies that those who identify as “right wing” believe, because others on the right have repeated those lies over and over. Same goes for those in the centre, or on the left.
In fact to me, the idea expressed in the statement: “If you tell a big enough lie, and you tell it often enough, it will be believed” ought to be a seen in another light: The idea that should make you ask, “What lies am I believing? What premises do I have that could be incorrect? Why do I have the premises that I have in the first place? Is it possible that even the premises I hold to are based on lies or only partial information that I’ve trusted and listened to?”
I honestly do not think we should discard the expression of an idea, just because of who it is attributed to. As I wrote earlier, I had no clue where this quote’s origins were until earlier this evening, but I absolutely agreed with the idea being expressed in it. I do not see anything that is absolutely wrong. Of course, not all will believe big lies, but it is true that many do. Especially when they hear it, often enough.
Expressions should be taken for what they are; the communication of ideas. Is the idea valid in of itself, regardless of who said it?
I do not fear expressions of ideas, even the ideas I find repugnant. I do on the other hand, fear repression of expression of ideas, just because some find it repugnant, and I fear the misuse of logic (logical fallacies) in repressing them. And actually, by repressing ideas, you are actually repressing critical thinking. In this case, some want to inhibit or repress the expression, because of who it is attributed to, and not what the idea is that is actually being expressed.
That’s a big problem.